Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

Pictured Above: (left to right) Christina Weinel, Angel program volunteer; Police Social Worker Kelly Pompilio; Becky Strouse, a Northern Kentucky University graduate student assisting with Alexandria’s PSW program; and Kimberly Wright, Angel program volunteer. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

Every law enforcement agency has repeat customers – that one house officers have been called to so many times the address and wife’s tear-stained face have been memorized by every officer on second shift. The old man who is terrorized by Vietnam nightmares and desperately needs the third shift officers’ company and comfort. That frantic mother who has come home to find her 20-something-year-old son in the throes of another heroin overdose and doesn’t know where else to turn.

“Across our industry, 60 percent of calls for service or more have nothing to do with law enforcement,” said Alexandria Police Chief Mike Ward. “It is social problems that no one knows who to call so they call 911 because they know someone will respond – and we have cops going to these calls.” 

According to the National Association of Social Workers, that percentage is closer to 80 percent. In what it refers to as the 80/20 rule, crime fighting takes 20 percent of officers’ time and service-related tasks fill the other 80 percent. Examples of service-related functions include responding to family disputes in which no crime has occurred and crisis intervention and mediation skills are required. Responding to homicides and robberies are examples of crime fighting; however, even these law enforcement responses could have a service function as victims may require crisis intervention, support and referrals. 

“We’ve spent decades trying to make social workers out of cops, and it does not work,” Ward said. 

That realization led Ward to pursue the idea of adding a police social worker to his department. Ward first was introduced to the concept of PSWs last spring while attending an International Association of Chiefs of Police working group on pretrial justice reform. During the discussion, a participant asked about follow up and resources, and a chief from southern Wisconsin said, ‘We just let our PSW handle that,’ Ward recalled. 

“I turned to Pennsylvania sitting to my right and asked, ‘What’s a PSW?’ and he didn’t know. So I turned to Texas on my left and said, ‘What’s a PSW?’ And he said, ‘I think it’s one of those ... tree-hugging social workers.” 

“So I pulled up my iPad and Googled it right there,” Ward continued. “And I started seeing that northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin had a police social work association, but that was all I could find.”

Later that night, Ward learned more during a conversation with a chief from Rapid City, S. D., who also had begun looking into adding a PSW to his personnel. Immediately upon returning to the office, Ward began to explore and gather information from the police social worker association and began his proposal to acquire a PSW position at the Alexandria Police Department. 

Ultimately, PSWs act as liaisons between the police department, the community and social-service agencies. Police-based social-service programs originated in 1970 out of a pilot project funded by the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, said Kristin Eby with the Association of Police Social Workers. From there, these programs began to grow in popularity because of the benefits these programs afford to departments and communities. Specifically, PSW programs can minimize the amount of time officers spend on non-criminal calls; allow for a multidisciplinary approach to difficult or complicated cases; provide readily available and trusted mental-health professionals for consultation and response; and provide assistance with victim cooperation, investigations and reducing recidivism rates in juvenile and domestic cases, Eby explained.

Kelly Pompilio serves as Alexandria’s first police social worker. With a master’s degree in social work and having served 12 years with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, she understands the needs of victims and where to turn for resources to help struggling residents. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

Kelly Pompilio serves as Alexandria’s first police social worker. With a master’s degree in social work and having served 12 years with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, she understands the needs of victims and where to turn for resources to help struggling residents. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

In what became a whirlwind of meetings, research and collaboration with Northern Kentucky University social work professors, Ward was able to get his position proposal approved, craft a job description, and hire Alexandria Police Department’s first PSW, Kelly Pompilio, in a matter of a few months. 

Holding a master’s degree in social work, being from the northern Kentucky area and having successfully moved through the ranks with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services for 12 years, Pompilio was the perfect candidate for this position, Ward said. 

“She has reduced our repeating calls for service because she’s taking these cases and running with them,” Ward said. “So, as a city, we are not just responding, we are helping people and getting results.” 

Finding Permanent Solutions

Law enforcement officers are trained to be excellent problem solvers. However, one of the biggest downfalls Ward and other advocates of PSWs saw with law enforcement officers responding to repeating calls for service, where there usually are deeper issues impacting the situation, is officers don’t have the training nor resources to find long-term solutions. 

“Officers solve the problem directly in front of them because they have other problems to get to,” said Alexandria Detective Chris Jaskowiak. “It is permanent to us because we are on to the next thing. We don’t have the connection with the victim.”

Because officers are trained to respond and handle crisis situations, their solutions often are temporary. For example, Jaskowiak shared about a case where officers responded to the home of a mother with a new baby whose home was a disaster. Pompilio recognized that the mother was likely suffering from postpartum depression, and she was able to get her help and on proper medication. 

“Cops would have just charged her with neglect because we don’t understand postpartum,” Jaskowiak said. “We are temporary problem solvers.”

However, these officers do not lack any compassion or genuine concern for residents struggling with any number of mental-health issues, vices or complicated situations.

“I’ve never worked with a department where they are so amazing and helpful to people,” Pompilio said about APD officers. “They’ve made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and given out coffee - we had a homeless guy living in the bus stop and our guys would go out and give him clothes and shoes, buy him McDonald’s, give him a blanket and a pillow because he was sleeping on the concrete. It’s amazing that they do those things, but it’s really just putting on a band-aid, and then the next day we get a complaint call that he’s sleeping in the bus stop again.

Kelly Pompilio has worked as a police social worker since August 2016. She has been instrumental in helping the department follow through on those cases where police contacts need extra assistance, in ways patrol officers cannot. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

Kelly Pompilio has worked as a police social worker since August 2016. She has been instrumental in helping the department follow through on those cases where police contacts need extra assistance, in ways patrol officers cannot. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

“Finally, when I got ahold of him, I got his story and his physical health issues. I was able to get him into a shelter in Covington where he could stay for a year, and they would work toward getting him housing and a medical card,” Pompilio continued.

Pompilio and Jaskowiak spent countless hours working with this gentleman. They transported him to his former residence in Bellevue to find two pieces of mail to ensure he could obtain identification, allowing him to get into the shelter and receive a medical card. This level of connection, follow through and time spent are nearly impossible for patrol officers to offer to those they encounter when they respond to calls for service.

“Since Kelly’s been here, the officers are seeing things get accomplished,” Ward said. “It’s making a tremendous difference from a street officer’s perspective.”

“It’s a totally different focus,” Jaskowiak agreed. “I now have access to a social worker who has access to the system and who can help victims. I can focus on the crime and she can focus on the victim.”


When Ward first hired Pompilio, the APD officers were not thrilled with the idea, he said. 

“Officers didn’t like the position at first,” Ward said. “They didn’t think we needed it. But I think if you talk to them now, they’d respond differently because of the feedback and results they are seeing. That has been our biggest accomplishment with Kelly – she communicates with officers.”

Of course, like any new endeavor, there are challenges departments will face and should consider as they explore the addition of a PSW within their agencies. In his NASW article, “Police Social Work: A Unique Area of Practice Arising from Law Enforcement Functions,” Hunter College Professor George Patterson outlines multiple issues with implementing police social work within police departments. 

Patterson first identifies securing and maintaining funding for sustainability of the position. Some departments, like Chattanooga, Tenn. Police Department have sought grants to fund PSW positions. In September 2015, CPD decided to use $600,000 in grant funds to hire social workers to embed with officers, respond to calls and help victims through trauma, specifically focusing on victims of gang-related violence, the Times Free Press reported.

Last year, Ward said there was enough money in his budget for a position, but not an officer. When the idea of the PSW position came up, he knew he had the resources to pursue it. 

“If you look at it from a budget perspective, there’s no hazardous duty, very little equipment,” Ward said. “We didn’t have to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on uniforms and we purchased a little Ford Focus, that didn’t need all the police equipment. 

“So from a budget perspective, she’s cheaper, but what we’re getting out of her is probably better because it’s a different discipline to augment and finalize cases. The bang for the buck is huge,” Ward continued. 

Ward specifically did not want to use grant monies to fund Pompilio’s position so that he knew the agency could continue to fund it well into the future. Though, he said if they bring on a second PSW down the road, he may look at grant-funding options.

Patterson also identified training issues for PSWs and ensuring proper supervision as issues to consider when bringing PSWs into a department. In Kentucky, officers are required to complete a minimum of 40 hours of training each year to maintain certification. Continual training is an important element to any professional. However, Ward said he has found this to be a difficult area. Since Alexandria’s PSW position is likely the only one in the state, it is hard to come up with a program that only has one person in it, Ward said. 

Pompilio has spent time working closely with APD’s crisis intervention team supervisor, and attended a Department of Criminal Justice Training-sponsored sexual assault response team training. In addition, she has undergone individual training with specific officers who have specific skill sets, Ward said.

Another issue Patterson identified is with police officers’ concerns about the safety of a civilian employee out on calls with them on a continuous basis. Ward said safety was a concern for APD too, and they have taken precautions in areas like Pompilio’s attire, keeping it plain and discreet, and always having officers present when she is visiting a home or another location where the individuals are known to be a potential threat. 

Pompilio recalls her learning curve with learning the importance of checking in with dispatch early on when she went to a home to conduct a victim interview. She was concentrating on her conversation with the victim and paid no attention to the requests for her to update her status coming from her radio. Soon, there was a knock on the door, and a very concerned officer stood there asking her if she was OK, because she was not answering her radio. 

“We watch her back on the street, and she watches our back in the office,” Jaskowiak said about how Pompilio also supports the department’s officers. 

An Inside Job

Pompilio’s skill set is not designated only for helping people in the community, she also works with officers who have experienced traumatic events, critical incidents or just need someone to talk to about issues in their personal lives. Pompilio went through a training session with the Veteran’s Affairs office to conduct mini post-traumatic stress assessments, to better support officers when they have experienced difficult or traumatic circumstances.

Pompilio was able to counsel an APD officer who had worked a case where a 12-year-old girl was hit by a car, and she was able to walk the officer through that experience, talking to her and linking her up with resources.

“She takes care of the community, but she takes care of us, too,” Ward said.

Social workers staffed within police departments are essential to helping bridge the gap between law enforcement and the myriad of human problems they encounter. Between the rise in mental health and substance-abuse calls and the necessity to counsel victims in the aftermath of everything from a house fire, suicide, unexpected death, homelessness and addiction, wherever there is crime, there is always a victim - and police social workers can step up to help. 

“We do the protection side, and our PSW provides full service all the way to the end,” Ward said. “She continues to follow up until the issue is resolved for that family.”

Common Issues Addressed by PSWs

  • Violent crimes – domestic violence, child and elder abuse, sexual assault
  • Juvenile problems – runaways, delinquencies
  • Traumatic incidents and deaths – homicide suicide, death notification
  • Family conflicts
  • Alcohol and other drug-related problems
  • Psychiatric illness and mental health concernshoarding
  • Financial needs
  • Homelessness
  • Geriatric concerns
  • Neighbor disputes
  • From the Association of Police Social Workers
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